It all began quite subtle….I would find myself waking up in the middle of the night from my sleep sitting up in panic and grasping for air. Eventually my body would settle down and then I would resume my sleep. Then it started to happen during the day while I was wide awake doing what every mum does, looking after her children. I had walked my eldest to pre-school and as I was walking back home with the other children suddenly I felt as though I was going to die. I noticed various changes in my body such as; a faster heartbeat, sweaty hands and tingling feet. All I could think about was getting home really quickly as the thought of dying on the pathway with my three children watching did not sound so good. Somehow I managed to get home whilst being in a state of panic!!!
To experience such a surge of panic was absolutely scary and overwhelming. It was as though it had just come out of nowhere. There was nothing unusual about my day which made the event even more confusing and distressing.
Eventually the panic passed and I settled down somewhat, however everything within me was convinced that I was dying, that there must be something physically wrong with me for that to happen.
These episodes of panic progressively got worse and I found myself in such a state one night that I rang my dad telling him that I thought I was dying. He was so cool, calm and collected. He kept telling me that you are not dying, just try and relax and go to bed. While I wanted to believe my dad the panic that I was experiencing had me such a state that to relax took for what felt like an eternity.
Once I had experienced several more episodes I decided that it was time to see the doctor as I couldn’t keep living like this.
As I sat in front of the doctor and explained everything that I had experienced over the past few weeks I was so surprised to find that she had an answer for me, one that didn’t involve dying. She went on to say that what I was experiencing is what you call “Panic Attacks”. Panic attacks I thought? What on earth are they? I had never heard of such a diagnosis. The doctor got out a brochure explaining to me what they were and why people get them. Suddenly I felt such a relief that for one I was not dying and what was happening to me happens to others as well that there is even a name for it.
The doctor told me that if I didn’t get on top of the panic attacks these would get the better of me. Then she explained that often medication is used to treat people that have panic attacks. “Medication I thought”, that didn’t sound too good to me. I don’t really do medication very well. The only medication I use is either panadol or aspro for a headache. The idea of having medication for panic attacks scared me even more.
My mind was made up that day that I was not going to let these panic attacks get the better of me as I did not want to use medication. I found that knowing what was happening to me was the first step to overcoming.
Little did I know that I would go through several more seasons in my life in which I would be battling these panic attacks.
What causes panic attacks?
Research has found that genetics play a part in contributing to a person having a panic attack. So if an individual’s parents had this condition the children were more likely to experience them as well. Stressful life circumstances are also believed to be a trigger of panic attacks.
My doctor had explained to me that when someone experiences stress for an extended period of time the panic attacks are almost an ‘after effect’. Your body is reacting to the stress you had gone through several months ago. This aspect of them makes it difficult to associate the panic attacks to stress simply because when you are having them you are not necessarily experiencing that stressful situation anymore.
It is important to go and see a doctor if you are experiencing panic/anxiety attacks as sometimes they are caused by a medical condition such as; hyperthyroidism, inner ear complaints, and heart conditions.
For me the worst part about experiencing panic attacks is the shear fear and discomfort you experience. It becomes such a cycle; you start to fear having a panic attack so much so, that you have another one. I must say that the worst place that I had experienced panic attacks were when driving in a car. In a city such as Sydney, Australia the traffic is chaotic at the best of times. There were several occasions that I experienced a panic attack while stuck in the middle of traffic! The sense of fear was terrible. All I wanted to do was open my car door and just jump out!
Even though I had the knowledge that what I was experiencing were panic attacks the fear of having one would often keep me at home. There were times when I would say ‘no’ to going out just to avoid having the fear that while I was out I was going to have another panic attack.
Several years ago I visited a cognitive behavioural therapist. She gave me some strategies that helped me a lot. One of the strategies was that when I sensed a panic attack coming on to just breathe in and out slowly five times. That the slow breathing actually stops your body from running out of oxygen so you eliminate some of those symptoms such as a racing heart and sweaty hands etc.
I would recommend people that experience panic attacks to see a cognitive behavioural therapist for managing them by learning strategies that help to overcome the cycle.
While individuals are going to experience panic/anxiety attacks in different ways and perhaps decide to use other forms of treatment I am in no way telling anyone what works for them. This is just my story and journey in experiencing these horrid episodes.
As someone who has experienced them and can be vulnerable to having them again I do make sure that I take care of myself. Taking care of myself means that when I am exhausted I have a nap or don’t over extend myself in anyway. This can be hard to do when life demands so much of you especially when you are a mother! However, having experienced prolonged seasons off and on with these panic attacks has forced me to make sure that my life is manageable and that I am not putting myself into unnecessary stressful situations.
While life has a way of bringing stress to the table it is crucial to make sure that we do not add to it by creating any further stress. It is vital to always look after yourself physically and mentally. Often our bodies send us a warning. Panic attacks or being on the verge of having them again are a warning to me that I need to either start going to bed earlier, or slow down and just have a day of doing nothing! We need to take time out.
I trust that this blog may be of some comfort to people that experience panic attacks. Remember though if you haven’t seen a doctor yet make sure you do.
And very importantly take time out for yourself and learn how to de stress!